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As David Stern leaves Commissioner’s office the only comparison is Pete Rozelle

Jan 31, 2014, 1:11 PM EDT

Cleveland Cavaliers v New York Knicks Getty Images

When you watch the Super Bowl this weekend, you are watching a game and a league that is the legacy of Pete Rozelle. He not only oversaw the creation of the Super Bowl, he created Monday night football, he changed the marketing of the game, most importantly he pushed through congress a bill that legalized single-network contracts for pro sports leagues — the NFL could negotiate for all its teams, not have them work individually. That changed the finances of the league (and its owners). Rozelle laid out the blueprint for today’s NFL.

David Stern took that blueprint and expanded on it to create today’s NBA — for that Stern should go down as one of the two greatest professional sports commissioner ever. Rozelle is the only other guy on Stern’s level, and Stern built upon what Rozelle had done.

Stern steps down from his office Saturday after 30 years as NBA Commissioner. Adam Silver steps into his hard-to-fill shoes.

When you watch the NBA All-Star Game and the weekend of events Feb. 14-16 in New Orleans, know that was David Stern — the idea of having a dunk contest and other events around the game was something he pushed from the day he took over in 1984. Know that when you watch a mid-season nationally televised game Friday night — where highlight packages and conversation before and after the game happens on ESPN and other outlets — that was David Stern’s vision.

Stern certainly wasn’t perfect — he was a cult of personality that led to two destructive lockouts, plus he already had a foundation to change the league put in place by others when he stepped in the door in 1984. You can make the case that he is more Bill Gates than Steve Jobs — he didn’t create new and innovative things, he just better exploited the market for those things.

Still, the NBA is in a far better place now because of him.

Far, far better.

Stern eventually came to understand the NBA’s advantage was that you could see and know it’s athletes — Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan did not have their faces hidden by helmets. You could get to know them, their personalities. It may have taken the transcendence of Michael Jordan hitting him over the head to get him to see it, but Stern came to understand the value of marketing stars — where the NFL could sell teams, the NBA could promote personalities. Hand in hand with its sponsors.

Stern was handed those personalities on a silver platter, but he understood how to promote those personalities and the game. He and the NBA were light years ahead of other leagues on this.

Stern embraced cable television — and down the line the Internet — more quickly and more deftly than other leagues. He understood that it was good to broaden the reach of the league, and with that the reach of the sponsors.

It all worked. And Stern got to keep doing it — and had the unwavering support of the old-line owners — because he made them a lot of money.

When Stern took over 1984, league revenues were $165 million a year, they are now at $5.5 billion a year. Those increasing revenues trickled down the players — the average player salary in 1984 was $290,000, it is now $5.7 million. The main ingredient behind that growth was the national television deal, which in 1984 netted the league $28.5 million total and is now is $937 million (and about to go up under a new contract). The NBA became the international brand for the best level of basketball, popular in Europe and China and all around the globe.

When Stern took over the game was battling the image of being a league where most of the players were using hard drugs — drug testing was already in place when Stern stepped in, but he and his staff worked hard to change that image. Same with the notion that the NBA was a “black” league that white America didn’t watch. The numbers showed that wasn’t true, especially as the NBA’s brightest stars became some of the biggest in sports, yet Stern had to work to overcome that with networks and sponsors.

Stern had been handed some ready-made stars to help change the league’s image in Magic and Bird — a natural rivalry of cities and styles — but he put in place the infrastructure the league needed to take advantage of their opportunities. That grew with Jordan. Soon companies that wanted nothing to do with the NBA before – Gatorade, Coca-Cola, etc. — were on board.

Stern’s legacy is not a simple one, not a clean one. Often unnoticed was that Larry O’Brien and Larry Fleisher did the hard work of laying the foundation for Stern. Critics can and do point to the NBA’s two lockouts under Stern, which not only hurt the reputation of the league (but ended with the owners making a larger cut of the league’s money) but also altered the lives of people who count on the NBA for their livelihood — people who sell concessions at games, who own the bar across the street from the arena, who get paid low wages as it is to clean up the arena after the fans leave and now had fewer days to work. All of that would be right.

For better or worse — and it is mostly better — the NBA today is made in the image of David Stern. And in that image the NBA has grown from a league where its finals were shown on Saturday afternoons or during the week tape-delayed to be shown after the prime-time shows and local nightly news, into one of the biggest sports in the world.

Now every NBA playoff game is broadcast on national television and the Finals are a ratings bonanza (especially when the biggest stars are part of it). It makes everyone a lot of money.

That’s David Stern’s real legacy.

The only other commissioner who changed his sport that like that was Pete Rozelle. Stern built on what he did, and the game will not be quite the same without him.

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